Landlords – Public Enemy Number 1

Again, this is a long, non-Atheist, rant. If you are reading on the magnificent Planet Atheism, or have come to the blog looking for philosophical insights into religion, please feel free to skip.

Depending on which sections of the UK media you have access to, you could be mistaken for thinking that, recently, buy to let landlords are the Earthly incarnation of evil itself and that any day now George Bush will declare war on them. As always, this is especially prevalent in the “left” media (what remains of it) but it has echoes all over. An example, is this weeks “Guardian Money” pages which has a massive spread about the evils of Buy-To-Let, along with a page of letters from readers who also think landlords are the definition of scum. The joys of the internet mean you can now read this online.

Highrise StockholmPersonally, I think it is all nonsense. I am pleased about this, as I have noticed a slight left-wing tendency in my previous posts, so hopefully this will bring me back to the centre 😀 .

Blocks of Flats in StockholmThe basic premise, in this article anyway, is that buy-to-let landlords have little regard for the local “community” and allow their properties to fall into disrepair. The secondary premise, and the main reason people hate buy-to-let-landlords in general, is that people who can afford to buy multiple houses are pushing house prices up, beyond the reach of any first time buyer. This is (sort of) supported by the data which shows the average UK house price is now around seven to nine times the average UK salary.

Before I attack some of the nonsense in these premises, I must declare an interest. I own a house which is rented out. I bought the house knowing I was unlikely to live in it for many a year and I still don’t live in it. I don’t even live in the same country the house is in. As a result, I do worry that legislation which affects buy to let landlords will affect me, and this gives me a fairly strong opinion – I may not be fully objective…

That said, I do try to be objective!

Nice house - must be expensiveBefore I can attack either premise, I need to point out that there seems a different meaning of the term “Buy to Let Landlord” depending on who you talk to. In the main body of the Guardian article, it seems to be talking about people who purchase houses with a view to turning them into multi-occupancy student accommodation blocks, often shoving many more students into a house than there are bedrooms to cope. The readers letters, however, do not appear to make this distinction on a regular basis.

Stockholm PicturesThis grey area of the “enemy” is important (to me), mainly because there are more people who own a second house which is rented out to a family (often bought with that sole purpose) than there are people who own several, high occupancy houses. If you target “buy to let landlords,” you get them all. On the off-chance that the petitions people mention get acknowledged by the government (which they probably will, even if only 10 people sign them, unlike the ID card and road-pricing ones…) it could impact everyone who rents out a house.

Right, with that ground work underway, we can look at the logic behind the basic premises. The guardian writes:

A tour of the city indicated that small-time landlordism and the transient student population it encourages have turned some areas into “tips” – overflowing wheelie bins and rubbish-strewn front gardens.

Already it seems we have a problem with the premise, a cause and effect issue – I am not sure it is actually a fallacy, but I am also not sure it is proven. I am not doubting the areas being talked about are in disrepair but there are two assumptions being made here.

Portchester Castle on a Sunny Day - processed by ABCFirst off, the assumption that “small time landlords” are encouraging a student population seems weak. The assumption that transient populations encourage disrepair seems more reasonable, but ironically for a left-leaning newspaper, smacks of Wilson’sBroken Windows” theory of crime (ironic, because Wilson pretty much invented right realist criminology). Students can live in an area for up to four years and will often be in the rented house for more than two years. While this seems transient for people who live in an area for 50 years, it isn’t really. The civic disorder alluded to by the newspaper article is also prevalent in many inner-city areas which do not have a transient student population – slum housing has always been slum housing. While I have not been to every city in the UK, I have been to a few and all the ones I have visited have undergone physical degradation. This is not exclusive to student housing so I strongly suspect the assumption that “transient student populations” are to blame is false. If we are going to use “Broken Windows” then it is actually more a case of the local population being unwilling to renovate their area which encourages the transients to litter and foul the neighbourhood.

Stourhead HouseAlso, blaming “small time landlords” strikes me as taking a cheap shot at an easy target. They are not to blame for students going to a University, surely that is the fault of the Uni… There is a massive element of “not in my back yard” to all of this. I am sure the people of Nottingham are happy they have a popular, respected university – along with the students who give the city it’s culture, provide cheap labour, spend money in the local shops etc – but they don’t want the students to live there. This is common all over the UK and not just about students. Small time landlords are not the “Robber Barons” who built the Victorian slums, although you may be forgiven for thinking they are the same. Small time landlords are often people who – for whatever reason – have two houses and have rented one out. Does this mean they are to blame for the social ills of a community? What is the alternative? Should students be forced to buy houses near the university they plan to study at (in addition to coughing up the massive fees)? Should students be forced out into the street? Should transient populations be banned from moving?

For better or worse, we live in a capitalist economy. If there is a demand for rented accommodation, people will provide it. Saying that Landlords “encourage” transient populations is madness, surely it is the other way round? Would a “small time landlord” really buy a property with the hope that renting it out would encourage students to move into the area and rent it off them? I wouldn’t. Also, this seems to speak of a strike against not just the “Big Landlords” who buy all over, but the people who have maybe one or two properties for rent. People who have bought a house as an investment opportunity or inherited. Are they really in bed with Satan?

As the Guardian continues, it seems to get a bit stranger. It is obvious that there is an issue which people feel strongly about (forming “Action Groups” is not the work of the Apathy Society…) but, I suspect the feelings are being misdirected.

“Buy-to-let has caused the physical degradation of the area. Landlords don’t clean up the mess of old furniture and disused pizza cartons, and the students, many from wealthy backgrounds, contribute no council tax,” says Lenton resident Maya Fletcher.

She’s a prime mover in the Nottingham Action Group, one of a number of similar initiatives across the country set up to combat buy-to-let blight. Lenton lies next to the University of Nottingham and in some streets, “studentification” has driven out all bar a tiny percentage of families.

“There’s no more feeding next door’s cat or taking in parcels. The government talks of cohesion and community. We’ve lost it,” she says.

Avebury - A public houseI read that as meaning they are actually against having students in their area more than anything else. Landlords are not what makes students move to an area, the University causes that. Either these residents want the students to live on the streets, or they are simply “Not in my backyarding” and want them to live “elsewhere.” Neither is a real solution. It is ironic that the community mentioned here are so reluctant to allow “outsiders” in that they blame the unwanted incomers for spoiling the community cohesion. Fifty years ago it wouldn’t be students being complained about but Black people, so I suppose it shows race relations have improved. Students are not aliens. They are people the same as the “families” being driven out. It amazes me that these people, and the Guardian, have seemingly alienated and de-humanised students. I suspect, if the locals stopped thinking of the students as the source of all evil and interacted with them they would be surprised that, like everyone else, there are good and bad ones. Not much different from the “families” they are concerned about. Why cant you ask a student to feed your cat, but you can ask your neighbours 8 year old?

This next bit comes closer to what I suspect the real problem is:

Nottingham was once a low-cost city, but a huge expansion in the student population over the past 15 years, including the creation of Nottingham Trent University, has led to the city being touted to investors as a buy-to-let hotspot. At a property investment show in 2005, Nottingham was being sold alongside Brazil and Bulgaria as a hugely profitable destination.

As I said, the secondary premise (and possibly the hidden target of this article) is that Buy to Let landlords push up property prices. This is reasonable, as it creates a demand for houses which is normally going to raise prices. Is this a bad thing in itself? Is this a case of people having “issues” about something, not knowing what that something is, and lashing out in many directions? This article starts of saying that buy to let encourages students who trash the area (reducing house prices, by the way) and at the same time complaining that buy to let pushes the house prices up. Both are reasonable complaints, but I think the volley of vitriol missed the target.

Castle Ward - 18th Century Stately HomeNow we can all agree that house prices are going through the roof in the UK now. First time buyers really do have all my sympathies as I very much doubt any of them can get on the property ladder in a big city now. As a result, most have to rent – which encourages people who can afford a second (or more) house to rent it out. Is this a bad thing?

Well, I don’t think so (as I said before, I am biased). First off, despite what the Thatcher government instilled in people, there is no “right” to be able to buy a house. Also, there certainly is no “right” to buy a house in an affluent city. There is often talk about a housing shortfall in the UK, but this is largely based on the figures for the larger cities. If you go to the outskirts of Carlisle for example, there are lots of decent, affordable, houses. People seem to think that because they want to work in (for example) London they should be able to buy affordable housing there. This is not, and never has been, the case, nor should it be.

Another irony of all this, is that people who are more than happy to see their house go up in value (often re-mortgaging on the basis of this, even if they do not move house) are complaining that the house prices are going up… Brilliant.

It is, as I said, sad that first time buyers will find it almost impossible to get on the housing market, but this is not the fault of small-scale landlords. The economic flux which is pushing house prices up is not something which has a simple “bad guy” to blame (should banks be blamed for lending massive multiples?) nor is there an easy solution – how about making it illegal to sell a house for more than you paid for it…?

I could go on about this for a lifetime, but I will stop now. This is not a subject which will go away though, it features almost daily in the press and I would love to hear other peoples opinions.

This will be continued… 😀

(by the way, the images aren’t really anything to do with the rant, I just wanted to brighten up the mountain of text a bit and put some “house” related photos in!)

[tags]buy-to-let, civil-liberties, civil-rights, council, culture, economy, house-prices, housing, human-rights, landlords, rent, rights, social-housing, social-rights, society, Economics, Evil, Rants, Guardian, Newspapers, Photographs, Pictures[/tags]

5 thoughts on “Landlords – Public Enemy Number 1

  1. Yes, it is a mad argument. How can the tiny number of landlords who let to students be responsble for house price rises in general and dumped pizza cartons?

    If educational policies insist that almost the entire population goes to university, someone has to house them. The cheapest and sometimes only option is to share a rented house.

    These sound like the sort of people who would complain about council or housing association properties near their home. Supporting them as community activists would give the Guardian pause, hencethe shift of target from “students”- with whom Guardian readers would probably have soem sympathy – to buy to rent landlords – a suitable hate target for the more knee-jerky readers.

    What are you reading Money for anyway? It’s barely two steps above Family and even lower than Sport in the supplement readability scale.

  2. The only reasons I buy the Guardian on a Saturday is to read the Guide, Bad Science, Money and work. The rest becomes cat tray liners…

  3. “Nottingham was once a low-cost city, but a huge expansion in the student population over the past 15 years, including the creation of Nottingham Trent University, has led to the city being touted to investors as a buy-to-let hotspot.” – i totally agree with this, it is also the same for Brighton.

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  5. First of all I’d like to say, Great article,

    In reply to your quote

    Nottingham was once a low-cost city, but a huge expansion in the student population over the past 15 years, including the creation of Nottingham Trent University, has led to the city being touted to investors as a buy-to-let hotspot. At a property investment show in 2005, Nottingham was being sold alongside Brazil and Bulgaria as a hugely profitable destination.

    It is consumer demand that drives any property market and it seems the student population of a city or town do have an impact on the buy to let market, but as for comparing Nothingham to Brazil or Bulgaria, I think is really interesting. In my opinion the UK market is dry and boring, yes your may feel safer and can actually go and check up on your property easier and yes the right type of property will generate rental income But come onoverseas property in emerging markets is a lot more exciting especially in terms of capital growth, some Brazil property in the northeast of Brazil near Natal have increased in value but 100% in less than 3 years and the trend shows no sign opf slowing down. same as Bulgaria in the capital Sofia some properties have increased in value by 100% in the last year. Crazy values and earning potential. And of course these destinations are a lot more exotic and exciting for your own personal enjoyment.

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